Tuesday, June 17, 2014

European XC Marathon Championships 2014

I know it's been quiet on my blog for a while, I've got excuses (mainly work eating into my free time and I prefer writing about positive things), but last weekend's European XC Marathon Championships in Ballyhoura deserves a blog post.

Some may remember that when I started out cycling in 2006 ish, it was on Ryan's old mountain bike, mainly to get myself through adventure races, but then switching to mountain biking completely. In 2008, Ryan and I raced cross country in Ireland and the UK and at the time the UK MTB series carried out the XC race on Saturdays and the XC Marathon race on the same weekend on Sundays, using laps of a lengthened version of the XC course. So every race weekend in the UK we would trash ourselves in the XC race on Saturday and then top it off with a 100km marathon race on Sunday. Thinking back I remember that I always felt like I had been run over by a truck come Monday morning when I went back to work. But the training effect was massive: I gained a huge amount of fitness doing that. So I am no stranger when it comes to long hard off road endurance racing.

Over the years however I moved more and more into road biking, learning and enjoying the extra dimension it offers on tactics - the "chess-on-wheels" element - and the team perspective that XC racing is missing. So my racing has changed, but I still love taking out my mountain bike and ripping up and down the trails in the local forests.

When I started mountain biking, the Irish mtb community was small and close-knit. Often, I would have been the only soul out and about on the mountain, and if I met another mountainbiker on 3Rock, I usually would have known who it was. There were also a couple of walkers and horse riders, but in general you would have had the mountain to yourself. Trailcentres were still a new idea here in Ireland, with the Ballyhoura trails only being built back then. How things have changed since then.

So when I heard that the European XC Marathon Championships were going to be carried out on home soil in Ballyhoura, I had to enter it of course. In fact, I was one of the first people to ride on the new Ballyhoura trails when they were being built, before they officially opened to the public: during my time as an adventure racer I did the now famous "Beast of Ballyhoura" inaugural adventure race in 2007, a race I thoroughly enjoyed in great company. Part of their marketing was that we were to ride the new Ballyhoura trails during our night mtb leg. Even then they were already lots of fun, at night time, with ghosts jumping out in front of you :)

However, the last time I'd done a mtb marathon was the national mtb marathon champs in 2012 and my mtb was gathering dust. Ah well, I decided to take out the mtb bike a bit more often to shake off the cobwebs and remembered how much fun it is to rip through the forests, pushing the bike to the limits on the technical trails and enjoying being so close to nature. The recent good weather and grippy trails helped :)

While the Euro champs were not going to be my main focus - my main focus was always going to be the national road champs, I still thought I'd be able to ride a good race, especially since I should be getting into good form for the national road champs in 2 weeks after, or so I thought when I started out planning my season for the year. But things don't always go your way. Since the end of last year I have been struggling with loss of power especially in my left leg. When I first noticed it I was training for the road world champs 2013, and I put it down to some muscle imbalance due to the really hard training I was doing and hoped the time off the bike in the off season would see to it and sort it out.

But when I started proper hard training again in Gran Canaria in January, the problem reappeared worse than ever. I struggled through, having to change my training around the problem, hoping that maybe it was just the shock of doing intervals again after long steady sessions all winter that was the problem. But when I started racing this season in Belgium the problem persisted, although I managed to get through the races OK.

I had planned to be seen by a specialist in Belgium during one of my racing stints over there, but again, things didn't go to plan and I wasn't going to be back in Belgium any time soon after I had left my previous team. And then I joined the UK-based Wyndymilla team in May, whose main goal was the British Tour Series - a series of 5 mid-week crits over 5 weeks in May/June. Anyone who knows me knows my hate-love with crits - probably my worst on-bike discipline, but also so exciting, and I was hoping my strength would get me through. But when I started, I soon noticed the familiar symptoms: shortly into the efforts of the race my left leg would be screaming with pain, my toes would feel like they're going numb and I'd start wriggling them to help the circulation. Then, a couple of minutes more and a few more sprints out of corners later, my left leg would pack in and I would nurse myself through the race for as long as possible. I managed the first crit OK, but was dropped early in the 2nd one and had to pull out of the 3rd one altogether. Not good. There was no point in doing any more crits with my legs giving up on me like that and I needed clarity if it was all just in my head (maybe my legs just weren't used to the high efforts of crit racing) or if there was something else wrong with me.

I knew a rider who had a similar problem with power loss and had gone to Scott McDonald for a leg blood pressure measurement. So I went to him one morning to get the same measurement done, pedalling on a stationary bike until I felt the symptoms coming on, then lying down immediately to get my blood pressure in my arms and legs measured. And the result confirmed what I had felt all along, there is something restricting my blood flow to my legs at effort. What I was initially surprised at was that both legs were affected - yes, that's right, my blood pressure actually dropped significantly on BOTH legs, albeit more so on my left leg. So it's not just in my head, phew! But depending on the cause it can mean anything between an easy fix and a big operation with lengthly recovery period. Only a scan can bring clarity and I'm now waiting to get scheduled for an arteriogram to see what the issue is and how it can be fixed (although I've been told that it can take half a year with public health insurance.....).

So that was why I couldn't really expect to have a good result at the European Marathon Champs, where you want to go as close to your limit for as long as possible, with very little recovery time and no "sitting in". I still decided to enter, go my pace and try to have some fun. How often do you have the chance to ride against some of the worlds best mountain bikers on home soil in beautiful Ballyhoura?

On the day of the race we were greeting with the same fine weather that we had all week leading up to it - it's rare in Ireland to have such a consistent stint of warmth and sunshine (although I've been telling all the Euros that it's always like that in Ireland in the summer ;)). The race start/finish area was buzzing with activity and looked fantastic. I first saw off Ryan who started 40min ahead of me in the star-packed men's Elite race before getting ready to start myself. A relatively small field of only 20 women had lined up in the Elite women's race.

And this is how the race went for me: the pace at the start wasn't super fast, but hard enough for my leg(s) to start suffering again. The really steep climbs up Seefin and the next mountain gave it the rest and I had to let the front group go and go my own speed. I kept on going, keeping my niggle at bay and tried to enjoy the fantastic trails and the superb view and the amazing weather. Unfortunately, about half way through, my chain and rear derailleur started acting up, with my chain jumping off the front or the rear during bumpy descents. Eventually I found the problem: the chain had been caught between the jockey wheel and the rear derailleur and worn through the rear derailleur cage, so that it had lost its rigidity and become floppy, resulting in the chain jumping around and hopping off whenever I went over technical terrain. So much for enjoying the fun descents having to nurse the bike home and riding as smooth as possible and keeping having to stop to put the chain back on, sooo frustrating! According to my moving time vs. stopping time I lost between 6-7 min for having to stop and fixing my chain - that time alone would have bumped me up a couple of places in the results. So all in all it was a bit of a disaster for me race wise and I finished in 11th place, 24 minutes down from a deserving win for Tereza Hurikova, who raced her heart out for the win.

But putting my own bad personal race experience aside, the event itself and everything around it was absolutely amazing. It was so nice to see so many familiar faces and big mtb names in my adopted home country - people I knew from years back from mtbing and training in the UK and Cyprus and Gran Canaria and other parts of the world, such a nice community of people sharing the same passion coming together to race in Ballyhoura. It was also great seeing Sally Bigham, who is recovering from some health issues to come 2nd for her umptieth time in a row. I used to race Sally in my first year mtb racing in the UK in 2008, and she would beat me in every Sunday marathon race, although she didn't have the heavy legs to deal with from the Saturday XC race. Back then in 2008 when we were both relatively new to it, I believe I would have been fairly well matched to her on the Sunday marathon if I hadn't done the XC race on Saturday, but since then Sally has become a world class mtb marathon racer and I don't think I'll ever have the chance to come close to beating her again.

It was a brilliant weekend, superbly organized by Niall Davis and his crew, down to the feed-zone distance stickers and the organized bottle handouts at the feedzones. And even the weather played ball! The atmosphere was fantastic, great crowds of mtb enthusiasts, such a warm welcome and so many encouraging "good lucks" and cheers from everyone we knew, such a relaxed and fun environment. Really really worth it and hoping for it to return some day. If Carlsberg put on mtb marathons, they would ask Niall Davis to organize it, or was it Erdinger...? ;)